A life of poverty, tradition and religious dread suffuses songs steeped in misery and...
Chris Jones 2003-07-01
In these days of bluegrass revivalism it's always good to return to the original stuff. Just as it was archivist John Cohen who encapsulated Holcomb's voice as the 'High Lonesome Sound' (the title of the Smithsonian's last Holcomb release); so it was Bob Dylan who described him as having 'a certain untamed sense of control' - hence the title. And, to be honest, these two soundbites more than adequately describe what it is that makes Roscoe's performances compelling and, at the same time, so harrowing.
This is mountain music tapped directly at its source. A life of poverty, tradition and religious dread suffuses songs steeped in misery and learnt by word of mouth. Whereas the previous Folkways disc collected Roscoe's recorded works of the 50s, this disc rounds up various live performances from the late 50s and 60s when the American folk revival was scouring the countryside to discover its already occluded roots. That's not to say that Holcomb, himself, wasn't prey to the spurious notions of 'authenticity' that rears its ugly head when the concept of 'real' folk music is mentioned. The superb sleeve notes (by Cohen himself) tell the tale of how Roscoe fell foul of purists who took offence at him seeming a bit too jolly backstage after a concert, and thus branded him a 'fake'.
Yet there's no denying that the mountain music of Roscoe Holcomb is 'real' in any sense you care to look at it. Even though he freely admitted to learning ''I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow'' from a Ralph Stanley 78, his version still convinces on every level. Whether it be accompanied by banjo, guitar or even (on one occasion) fiddle, the tremendous keening voice demands that you pay full attention to the tragic narratives. From broadside ballads (''Fair Miss In The Garden'') to blues standards (''Milk Cow Blues'') you never doubt that Holcomb lived a hard life but somehow turned bitter experience into uplifting art. And, luckily for us, he was captured on tape before the link to the past was lost forever. Roscoe gave his last performance in 1978, but Folkways have ensured that this emotionally devastating music will live on for many years to come.